In my late 20s, I met my husband. He was divorced and had two children, Katy, 7, and Rory, 9. The kids lived with their mom full time and spent every other weekend with Jason. It was difficult at first since they had memories and traditions they held on to tightly.
Memories from his previous marriage stuck like glue to every object and person. As Katy once elegantly said, “Every place and thing is haunted.”
Katy put on her nightstand a family picture of my husband, his ex-wife and the kids. They also had videos and audio tapes of their wedding. The wedding cake topper was on a dresser and Rory wore his father’s old wedding band. To be honest, it stung at first. As a new wife and mother, I wanted memories of my own. Jason and I discussed with the kids that some things should be put in a safe place for when they got older. We allowed Rory to keep the ring on and Katy was allowed to leave the picture in her room. The rest of the mementos were packed away.
I never insisted on being called “mom”—the kids have a loving mother. My rationale was to show I wasn’t trying to replace her. Rory and Katy amusingly quote what I stated long ago: “Karen says we can call her whatever we want, as long as it isn’t ‘hey you.’”
As a bonus mom I had to find a balance of respecting what came before me and honoring the new family I blended into. I hope I can help other new bonus parents find stability in their own families.
Children need stability in order to feel safe. In order to build stability, I felt there needed to be routines so Katy and Rory knew what to expect. Jason worked second shift and I was alone with the kids for most of the weekend. On Friday nights I made dinner so it would be ready as soon as they were dropped off. At dinner, we would discuss school or anything interesting that occurred. I set a bedtime for them and had activities planned out. We would watch movies and have ice cream sundaes. I set out their pajamas and made them brush their teeth. I tucked them in and said goodnight. When Jason arrived home after work, he would poke his head in and give them a hug.
Katy and Rory have always had a fiery sibling rivalry. Often I would hear muffled sounds of bickering and traded jabs. Increasingly, it became apparent I needed to spend time with each child separately. In doing so, it helped to build emotional stability. Jason and I talked to the kids and told them we would spend an hour with each child.
Katy was an early riser and would ask what time she should wake me up. Like clockwork I would hear, “Psssst, Karen!” Eyes crusty and vision blurred, I would make out a small dark form on my bed. It was Katy eager to spend time with me. While Jason and Rory slept in, Katy and I would play a game. Later in the morning, Rory and I would do something. It was crucial to have fairness with respect to time since we didn’t want hurt feelings or resentment to form.
Saturdays were spent doing normal family things until Jason had to leave for work. Usually we did grocery shopping or visited a family member. I would often babysit for my niece and nephew. I would take Katy and Rory to my brother’s house so the kids could play together. My nephew and Rory were the same age and spent hours trying on super hero costumes. Katy and my niece played while I made dinner. Jason would call each night after dinner to discuss any issues.
Sundays were spent going to church or sleeping in. Katy, of course, would wake me up. We would take the kids to a museum, concert, library or fair. I was a graduate student and took the kids to events at school. (I even took both kids with me to a class so they could see that aspect of my life.)
While routines were helpful, the element of surprise was a burst of energy. On a whim in the summer, we would pack a picnic and head to a park. We would make lunches and drive to Chicago. We parked at Navy Pier and spent all day experiencing the city. In the evening we would share Chicago-style pizza and then drive home. The small treats were an added bonus to keep them on their little toes.
Turning routines into traditions
As my stepchildren grew older, many routines would transition into family traditions. Due to custody arrangements, we didn’t observe Thanksgiving on the actual day. Jason and I prepared a feast with all the trimmings the following weekend. We would put up our fake tree in the beginning of December, and the kids would hang ornaments they had since they were babies. Each holiday season we purchased a new ornament to go on the tree. Katy often made ornaments for me, like the white painted dog bone ornament with black spots and floppy ears. As a family, we put up decorations while listening to holiday songs. I incorporated their past and present so there was a sense of familiarity.
Christmas Eve morning we opened gifts. The kids would have all day to play with their new toys and eat sugary treats. The evening was spent with my husband’s family, and then around midnight, we met Jason’s ex-wife to drop off the kids.
New routines and traditions
It is hard to believe Rory and Katy are now 15 and 13 years old. Technology has become an important component in their lives, and in its wake are dusty broken toys and old VHS tapes of “Veggie Tales.”
The board games the kids used to play are tossed in the hall closet, and their fingers are instead thumbing keys on the phone or typing a post on Facebook. Now their fits of anger, random tears and pouting are more related to the fact that they are teenagers, and they increasingly need to be treated as individuals.
Rory loves video games and is girl crazy. Katy loves One Direction and playing sports. Everyone but me enjoys “Dr. Who,” so Sundays have become “Dr. Who” marathons for them, while I work on my writing or catch up on laundry.
Katy and I still get up early on Saturdays and walk to the local coffee shop. We have our young lady time over a strawberry smoothie—laughing and contemplating why boys are weird.
The children still reside primarily with their mom, so attending Katy’s sport events can be difficult. If they land on a weekend, we try to get there. Rory isn’t into sports but sings in school plays. Regrettably, his events land during the week when Jason or I can’t attend. We make it a point to call and ask how it went.
As Katy and Rory have grown up, bedtimes have been tossed aside. Jason looks forward to spending time with the kids when he gets home from work. They are allowed to entertain themselves but make sure there is some time for us to spend as a family.
With Rory being rebellious and trying to be independent, it is hard being the only parent while Jason works second shift. The words I never thought would pass my lips have been spoken: “Wait until your father gets home.” Katy can be cheerful one minute and balling her eyes out in a blink of an eye. (Darn growing pains!)
For the most part we make the unique situation work. Similar to any family, we have our ups and downs. Living with a spouse who works a different shift has its share of pitfalls, especially when it means the lack of back-up when the kids misbehave and only small increments of time to spend as a married couple.
Two teenagers in the house make life interesting, to say the least. There are outside forces such as in-laws or ex-spouses that shake things up from time to time. However, I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. Each weekend gives me something new to look forward to. Excitement flutters in my stomach as I anticipate the kids running in the door. As long as there is fairness, open communication and love, we can overcome anything.
Karen Pilarski is a freelance writer and blogger from Milwaukee.
More here: Part 1 in the series, I'm Not An Evil Stepmom!
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